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Afghanistan: Reporter's Notebook -- A Trip To The Panjshir Valley

Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley is the stuff of legend. It was the valley that cost the Soviet Union the Afghan war. Time after time, the Soviets were repulsed in the valley by the late mujahedin commander Ahmad Shah Massoud and his men. Massoud, the "Lion of the Panjshir," later used his valley lair to halt the Taliban advance until his assassination last year. Now, with the Taliban ousted, life in the Panjshir Valley has returned to normal.

Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan; 23 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley lies little more than 100 kilometers northeast of the capital, Kabul, but the drive is murderous. The first 50 kilometers are paved road, but suddenly the road ends and after that it's just rocks and dust. The journey takes four or five hours.

I made the trip earlier this month to attend a memorial service for the late Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud was killed on 9 September 2001 in a bomb attack by Arab assassins posing as foreign journalists. Although no one knows for sure who planned the murder, many suspect the hand of Osama bin Laden.

The valley itself is stunning and defined by the blue-green Panjshir River. The river cuts through the Hindu Kush, a brown and barren chain of high mountains that stretches into vast areas of Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan.

The Panjshir Valley's strategic position has been recognized for centuries, but foreigners have always had problems trying to conquer it.

Professor Aziz Ahmed Rahmand, an expert in Afghan history at Kabul University, told me that in the 4th century, B.C., Alexander the Great met with fierce resistance from the Panjshiris. The fighting forced him to change his plans for the conquest of India.

In the 13th century, he added, the Panjshiris stood up to Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes.

But it was Massoud, in modern times, who elevated the Panjshir Valley to mythical proportions. Massoud used the narrow gorge and high-elevation hideaways as a base of resistance, first against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and later against the Taliban.

Massoud enjoyed an enormous reputation among Soviet commanders who tried on several occasions to take the valley using planes, helicopter gunships, and tanks, but were beaten back every time. As professor Rahmand explained, "Ahmad Shah Massoud used this strategic and important valley during the years of fighting, especially in the year 1358 (1979), when the Soviet Union invaded and conquered Afghanistan. Massoud occupied positions in the Hindu Kush mountain range 4,000 meters above sea level, while Soviet troops launched more than five offensives into the valley. They did not succeed in their military operations."

Today, it's hard to imagine Soviet tanks lumbering up the narrow road that hugs the gorge, hundreds of meters above the river in some areas. Dozens of destroyed tanks still line the road -- proof both of the Soviets' determination and their failure.

This is the heart of Massoud country. In other parts of Afghanistan, especially south of Kabul, the ubiquitous posters and pictures of Massoud sometimes seem forced -- an artificial effort to create a national hero. But here, enthusiasm for the ethnic Tajik commander is genuine.

The lyrics of a song from the memorial service run, "Massoud the hero, Massoud the hero. The pride of Islamic nations of the world. Massoud destroyed the enemy, Massoud destroyed the enemy. The arrow from his bow tore the heart of the enemy, the arrow from his bow tore the heart of the enemy."

On this hot day, thousands of men -- many of whom served under Massoud -- have made the arduous journey deep into the valley to pay their respects.

The service begins with a poem read over a loudspeaker. It is a request to the mountains of the Hindu Kush to bow down so that the men can place their heads on the rocks to grieve.

The crowd is silent as the poem is read:

"Bow down, O my Hindu Kush, Bow down, O my Hindu Kush, so that I can put my head on you, to place my head on your rocks and cry."

Just behind the mourners stands Massoud's tomb, a plain white building with a gleaming green dome. The tomb sits atop a rise in the valley with a commanding view of the river far below.

Plans are afoot to expand the tomb and make it into a national monument or pilgrimage site. Bulldozers, in fact, have already cleared away large swaths of land around the tomb, but it's not yet apparent what will be built here.

The service is moving but mercifully brief in unforgiving 40-degree Celsius heat. Speakers focus their remarks not so much on Massoud's military prowess but on his hopes -- now largely realized -- of a united Afghanistan at peace with itself.

But there are concerns here, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, that the peace won't last. Mutaleb, a 19-year-old student from the Panjshir, said it will all depend on whether factions around the country can unite for the common good.

"The terrorists (the Taliban and Al-Qaeda) are trying to worsen the situation, but if our leaders try in an honest way, then I hope that our country will improve. If they can bring national unity to the county, then the country will improve. But if they do not work honestly, I don't think it can," Mutaleb said.

Ironically, prospects for peace now rest largely in the hands of a small group of Panjshiris in Kabul. No fewer than three key ministers in the country's Transitional Authority hail from this thinly populated sliver of Afghanistan: Defense Minister Mohammad Qassem Fahim, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, and Education Minister Mohammad Yunis Qanuni. All three served in the Northern Alliance command that swept to power late last year. Some say that they, not President Hamid Karzai, now control the country.

While many here hope for the best, some privately fear the worst -- that these men will place their own interests ahead of the interests of the country.

That fear, tellingly, is reflected in the shifting meaning of the word "Panjshiri." In many quarters, the term now carries a negative connotation, no longer referring to freedom fighters but rather to a narrow clique of Kabul ministers.

Back in the valley, there's a feeling of life returning to normal. The Panjshir River is one of the last fast-flowing rivers left in drought-stricken Afghanistan, and the fields here are lush with corn and fruit. Even if fighting should break out anew, there's confidence that this valley, at least, will again be able to defend itself.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.